Review Summary: This is a surprising collection of strong material that is perhaps misrepresented by the unlikely hit single ‘One of us’.
When I think back to 1995, I’ll always remember it as the year of Alanis Morissette. Every time I turned on the TV, she was there in that garishly stark video for ‘You oughta know’. The leather pants imagery and radio friendly rage of that single gradually gave way to the real Alanis; the one who serenaded us with platitudes and advice seemingly culled from the self-help section of a mid 90’s bookstore. Two years before, Sheryl Crow had been a sign – a new group of female artists would be making down to earth music that drew from country, rock, blues and folk. These sounds would be modulated through a pop filter to plane off the rough patches. It would be appealing and comfortable, especially compared to the caustic era of grunge. Joan Osborne found herself placed in this same category – some music sites mistakenly even suggest “similar” artists like Tracy Bonham and Meredith Brooks.
Truth is Joan Osborne’s grittier (and simultaneously more fun) ‘Relish’ sounds like the work of someone who stumbled into a music career. Joan had initially dreamed of becoming a documentary film maker, but after a fateful night in a cafe singing an Ella Fitzgerald inspired take on an old number while accompanied by the house pianist, she felt a slow draw to a different creative world. Her first thoughts on the direction of her life make sense – on ‘Relish’ the lyrics seem far less didactic and self-centred when compared with some of her contemporaries’. The modus operandi is one of a storyteller and observer.
Joan has apparently stated in later years that she enjoyed the subsequent success of her infamous single ‘One of us’, but was glad to be out of the immediate, Grammy fevered spotlight that must have come out of nowhere following the release of ‘Relish’. ‘One of us’ was an incredibly idiosyncratic track – the subject matter was hardly the stuff top 40 hits are made of, and for the less mainstream listener it probably smacked of novelty. I personally found new respect for it after hearing the full song, complete with the roots music sample for an introduction. The deceptively simple lyrics belie that naïve delivery and incredibly catchy riff. I liked the imagery of god riding the bus and catching up with the pope on the phone, and hardened atheists like myself having to grudgingly accept Jesus and the saints (oh, and all the prophets) on the basis of actually seeing him in all his glory. It’s actually a strangely moving track.
However, the lead single cannot really be compared to album highlights ‘St Teresa’, ‘Pensacola’ and ‘Right hand man’. ‘St Teresa’ opens with dark rattling of what sounds like cow bell and then introduces that mysterious mandolin riff. The song languidly outlines the story of a street hustler with an unhurried grace, and effortlessly melds a form of bass driven city soul to something older and almost pagan. The passage of chanting is particularly memorable, and the almost frantic denouement is a masterful climax – Joan’s rasping high note becomes the only logical place for the song to go as her vocal drowns in a sea of organ. I’m surprised and not surprised the song courted ire from the US Catholic League.
‘Pensacola’ combines a raw bluegrass vocal with a rousing, junkyard blues backing, and ‘Right hand man’ is probably one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard. I don’t mind admitting that as a teenager, that track left me a little slack-jawed, especially paired with the blistering video. Joan did little more than perform with her band in a sundress, but the video has the power to humble when coupled with the sound of that strung out vocal on the verse tightening up into a burning full throated bellow on the chorus. Joan’s natural sexuality engulfs the song as if the sheet music fell into a pillar of billowing flame, and the crazy piano and messy blues rock riot at the breakdown is just unforgettably exhilarating. It’s fast and leaves you with straw in your hair – you’ve been warned.
Unfortunately Joan and her fellow writers could not maintain the wonderful inventiveness displayed in the aforementioned tracks. While ‘Dracula Moon’ and the standard ‘Help Me ’are solid enough inclusions, they seem like disappointingly conventional blues numbers amidst the more interesting material. ‘Spider web’ is promising with its loopy riff and percussion, but the song becomes repetitive and feels unfinished (as if only built around one idea). The lyrics are also silly metaphysical twaddle about Ray Charles helping Joan discover “her spider web” (whatever that means). ‘Let’s just get naked’ is a non-starter; the song stalls in a quagmire of limited fuzzy blues rock backing and coy Kim Deal-lite vocals. As has been said before, using a word like naked in a sexual sense is like using the word sexy – it doesn’t automatically make a song sexy.
However, ‘Ladder’ is a great pick me up in the middle of the record with its slick piano driven urban soul, and the album closers ‘Crazy baby’ and ‘Lumina’ are beautiful. ‘Lumina’ reads like a lullaby with cryptic and imaginative lyrics – I always see that trickle of juice running down a chin when I hear the song. ‘Crazy baby’ builds up on delicate layers of incisive guitar riffing, electric piano and soft snare, especially in the brilliantly paced intro. The song constructs a poignant scene of despair and the guitar work is rich and tortured – this is not the type of thing which normally works for commercial artists but Joan makes it equally sensitive and harrowing.
‘Relish’ builds its foundation far deeper in the earth than most would believe on face value. Despite some filler, there are more outstanding songs than weak ones. The title is pretty clever too – the album is a bit like a mixture of flavours, and they all taste homemade.